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Penalties for drivers using handheld cellphones increase

Starting Saturday, the penalties for driving in New York State while texting or talking on a cellphone will rise from three points on a license to five, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Friday.

The Democratic governor said he has the administrative authority to toughen these penalties on his own.

But he also is asking the State Legislature to crack down on junior and probationary drivers who are convicted of texting or other handheld cellphone use while driving.

Their licenses would be suspended for 60 days after a first conviction under Cuomo's proposal.

In addition, the licenses of these beginning drivers would be revoked for six months if they make the same mistake again within six months.

"It's amazing how chronic and prevalent this activity is," Cuomo said at a Manhattan news conference. He said his observation was based on all the time he spends behind the wheel because New York is a big state.

Noting how far a car can travel at 60 mph, he added: "It's apparently harmless and quick -- but it's deadly."

Distracted driving was a factor in 25,165 crashes that caused deaths or personal injuries in the state in 2011. That is almost five times more than the 4,628 crashes caused by drivers when alcohol was involved.

Police officers and troopers have taken notice. The number of tickets that motorists received for texting while driving shot up 234 percent from 2011 to 2012, Cuomo said.

At the same time, arrests for alcohol-related driving slipped 4 percent.

Teenage drivers are especially prone to chatting or texting on their cellphones. About 43 percent of teenage motorists admitted to regularly texting while driving, according to the Pediatric Academic Societies, which conducts research on child health issues.

For teens, "it is almost an appendage; it is almost glued to their hand," Cuomo said. "The inexperience plus the distraction can be a deadly combination, and that's what we want to stop."

At 55 mph, motorists who send or receive texts take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. That works out to driving the entire length of a football field.

Legally, drivers can only use handheld devices such as cellphones when they are parked.

Electronic navigation systems must be mounted; if they are handheld, the same penalties apply, said Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.

Under the new state budget approved in April, fines already were raised for motorists who talk or text on cellphones while driving.

A new minimum fine of $150 was established, which rises to $200 for a second violation within 18 months, and to $400 for a third or more infractions, according to the state Division of Budget.

Previously, drivers faced a maximum fine of $100 for using their cellphones and $150 for texting.

The Department of Motor Vehicles says on its website that it must revoke the license of any drivers who rack up three offenses within 18 months -- regardless of how many points they have.


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